Horses have been domesticated for many thousands of years. Indeed, late bronze age grave goods have included bits and bridles. They were used for riding and as pack animals, although it was nor clear when they were first used in agriculture. Oxen were the traditional draught animal, as they were more readily available than horses.
By the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries horses had become more common, especially for pulling carts and transporting goods. These animals had to be strong to cope with the appalling nature of medieval roads, although they were considerably shorter in height than the giant Shire we know today.
The seventeenth century saw a great deal of development in horse breeding. An increased demand for travel by coach, culminating in the development of coach springs in 1690led to the breeding of a large and powerful horse, that also had the capacity for speed.
By the eighteenth century the improvements in carriage design and road surface meant that lighter faster horses were used for long distance driving, whereas the heavier, slower horses found a role for themselves on the farm.
Eighteenth century changes in the technology of farming implements, such as Tull’s Seed Drill, made the horse the animal of choice on the farm, replacing the ox. These horses were by now of a height and stature recognisable as a modern Shire.
The second half of the Eighteenth century saw the construction of a nationwide system of canals which enabled heavy loads to be transported long distances. The Shire horse was the ideal beast to use as a Barge Horse, pulling the barges along the canals. They were also used to haul large wagons, drays, omnibuses and trams.
Although the Shire might now seem to us most at home in the fields, it must not be forgotten that up until the last half of the twentieth century, the horse was also the main urban means of transport, too.
The rise of urban living throughout history has always fuelled a demand for goods from the countryside. The coming of the railways is often thought to have signalled the beginning of the decline in horse-drawn traffic, but in fact horses were in great demand for transporting goods to and from the railway yards. In fact, in 1893, the railway companies ‘collecting and delivering goods to the metropolis have amongst them a stud of 6,000 (horses).’ These horses would have need to be capable of pulling large loads and so would have been Shires or a similar breed.
Carrier firms had around 19,000 horses in London alone, while the Capital’s rubbish collection would have employed another 1,500 horses, all of whom would have been draught breeds.
Also in 1893 it was estimated that London’s brewers used around 3,000 horses, many of which were Shires. Indeed, some brewers still use Shires today, not only for promotional purposes, but also for local deliveries.
The transportation of coal, the vital source of heating and cooking fuel, had to be done by horses, and with wagons weighing up to 3 tons, this was definitely a job for the heavies!
From the 1920s onwards the use of motorised transport rose rapidly and the need for the horse declined. Tractors replaced horses on farms and lorries replaced horse drawn wagon. Finally more and more road vehicles were powered by engines and the Shire horse’s days soon seemed numbered.
Shire horse numbers fell from well over a million to just a few thousand by the 1960s and the breed was in serious trouble. A small group of dedicated breeders came to rescue though and the Shire is seeing a resurgence in popularity both as a working animal and a riding horse.